Montgomery County eyes loosening single-family zoning rules to spur more housing - Maryland Daily Record (2024)

Montgomery County eyes loosening single-family zoning rules to spur more housing - Maryland Daily Record (1) Listen to this article

Montgomery County residents may see more duplexes, triplexes, townhomes and small apartment buildings in single-family zoned neighborhoods after the county’s planning board earlier this month unanimously approved an attainable housing initiative.

The Attainable Housing Strategies project would give developers and property owners the option to build “middle housing” in areas that had decades-old zoning policies for single-family homes. The effort, which still needs approval from the Montgomery County Council, is part of a “historic move to address Montgomery County’s housing crisis,” according to a planning department news release.

“Montgomery County is experiencing a housing shortage,” Planning Board Chair Artie Harris said during the June 13 meeting at which the proposal was approved. “The shortage isn’t theoretical. It’s a real problem that threatens our economy, our community and the diversity and vibrancy that makes Montgomery County the model that others seek to emulate.”

The Attainable Housing Strategies project is part of the implementation of Thrive Montgomery 2050, another initiative passed in 2022 that received some pushback from county residents. Montgomery County is the first county in Maryland to pursue loosening single-family zoning policies and creating more housing types, according to Dominic Butchko, the Maryland Association of Counties’ associate policy director.

The county is home to more than 1 million residents and is expected to add 200,000 more in the next 25 years, Harris said at the June 13 meeting. Yet the county is not building fast enough to keep up with this growth, he added.

Single-family homes in Montgomery County sold for an average of $970,000 in 2023, according to a blog written by Harris and Planning Director Jason Sartori. And consequently, the county’s middle-income population has decreased by more than 25,000 people since 2005 as home prices rise, the officials wrote.

“This has resulted in the loss of key property tax revenue used to pay for needed county services, including schools and infrastructure improvements,” Harris said.

Middle housing, which can range from small-scale duplexes to large-scale four-story apartment buildings, are more attainable for middle-income families and can still blend in with single-family home areas, according to the planning department.

Four residential zones are targeted by this new initiative, according to Sartori. An area of desired growth for denser housing includes “corridors” — which are along roads such as Interstate 270, U.S. Route 29 and Md. 355. These corridors are closer to services residents often visit, and growth near these areas can reduce commutes, Sartori told The Daily Record.

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The zoning initiative is part of Thrive 2050, an update to the Montgomery County General Plan aiming to improve accessible housing, transit and the county’s economy.

Dozens of residents protested Thrive 2050 outside the county’s planning department in 2021, saying the plan could lessen affordable housing, increase gentrification and harm the environment, MoCo360 reported.

Almost 4,000 people signed a petition in 2021 expressing concerns about Thrive 2050’s plans to allow multifamily housing in single-family zoned neighborhoods. They also contended that there had been a lack of public input regarding zoning policies.

Cheryl Gannon, president of the Montgomery County Civic Federation, said in an interview Tuesday that although the Attainable Housing Strategies initiative has good aspects, there are still several issues that have not been addressed.

Gannon pointed out that plexes are often rental opportunities rather than ownership opportunities. There should be tools that make new houses more affordable and prevent affordable properties from being replaced with expensive multifamily housing, she added.

“We don’t have a blanket opposition to the Attainable Housing Strategies initiative,” Gannon said. “We just want it to actually be really attainable to the right people, attainable to middle-class people.”

Some other concerns Gannon noted were challenges with building condos, funding school construction, preventing traffic congestion among corridors and making residents more aware of different aspects of the proposal.

There are numerous ways the planning department is addressing concerns, Sartori said. Although zoning regulations cannot require home ownership, more housing will still inevitably increase ownership opportunities, he said

He has also heard some concerns about parking and infrastructure, and noted that the public facilities ordinance requires the government to evaluate public infrastructure capacities before approving plans. Those who live in multifamily housing must still pay impact taxes that will address the construction of schools and transportation, Sartori added.

The planning board also recommends new housing to conform with the pattern book, a development standards guide that will ensure multifamily housing maintains physical consistency with neighborhoods, he said.

Although Montgomery County is the first in Maryland to pursue this initiative, there have been similar efforts across the nation. In Virginia, Arlington and Alexandria have also adapted changes to their single-family zones, Sartori said.

Sartori hopes the council will approve a the plan in early 2025, and property owners can take advantage of the opportunity in mid-2025.

Montgomery County eyes loosening single-family zoning rules to spur more housing - Maryland Daily Record (2024)
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